TMO Exclusive Interview With Bob "Dr. Mac OS X" LeVitus On OS X

We are pleased to present an exclusive interview on OS X with Dr. Macintosh himself, Bob LeVitus. Bob has published 36 books about computers and technology, including "Mac OS 9 For Dummies," "Mac Answers: 2nd Edition," and "Dr. Macintosh." His books have sold more than a million copies worldwide. He is presently a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, and the Austin American-Statesman, and has just completes Mac OS X For Dummies. We got the opportunity to get his thoughts on just about everything related to Mac OS X.

Bryan Chaffin (TMO): When did you start using Mac OS X?

Bob LeVitus (Dr. Mac): Hmmm. That depends upon how you define Mac OS X. Would Copland or Rhapsody count? :-)

As for what we now know as Mac OS X, Iive been using it a long, long time — since whenever it was that the first developer preview was released.

TMO: Describe your initial reaction to it when you fired it up for the first time.

Dr. Mac: Lukewarm. Alpha releases of an operating system are hard to judge and at that point I just couldnit tell how it was going to turn out.

TMO: How did you think that the Mac user base would react at that point?

Dr. Mac: Again, it was hard to tell way back then. The promise seemed to be there but the very early releases were so incomplete, and had so few native apps, there was no way to tell. By the time the Public Beta came out, though, I was well on my way to becoming a fan.

TMO: More importantly, how did you think the rest of the computing world would react?

Dr. Mac: At that point, I figured Mac power users and UNIX lovers would like it a lot. I wasnit so sure about the "everyday" Mac user, though.

TMO: Have those initial reactions from you reflected the way things have actually gone, especially since the release of Mac OS X final on March 24th?

Dr. Mac: Not really. Before the release of 10.0, I could see that there would be huge benefits, but I was afraid the transition was going to be rocky, and that old software wouldnit run well. Fortunately, those seem to be moot points.

Today I think anyone and everyone who uses a Mac will come to love OS X. Maybe not this year, and certainly not the March 24th 10.0 release, but by next year — for sure.

One thing I should make clear right now is that as good as I think OS X is, the 10.0 release is more of a 2nd public beta than a "point" release. Itis good, but itis just not a polished, final, $129 release yet.

TMO: You have often written books designed specifically for people new to computing or new to the Mac. In fact, your next book, Mac OS X for Dummies, is about to be released. How do you think Mac OS X stands up to the needs and desires of this particular market segment?

Dr. Mac: If youive never used a Mac before, I think learning how to use OS X will be no tougher than learning to use Mac OS 9x or 8x or whatever. Iive taught lots of brand-newbies how to use Macs. I donit think teaching them OS X will be any more difficult, and it might be even easier.

The good news (for me, but not for users) is that the documentation in the box is sparse. (At least it is in 10.0; perhaps 10.1, which will ship pre-installed on all Macs, will have a real manual, but I wouldnit bet on it.)

So I expect a lot of new and new-ish users will be looking for a book to help them get up to speed with Mac OS X. And thatis the user "Mac OS X For Dummies" is aimed at.

TMO: Same question, but for long time Mac users.

Dr. Mac: Interestingly, I think long time users will have a harder time adapting to it than a brand new user. I say that because we old timers have a lot of old baggage. Most of what we know about Macs doesnit apply anymore (except in Classic mode, and even then itis a whole new ball game). Troubleshooting is a good example — almost everything weive learned over the past 16 years is wrong for OS X. For example, you donit cavalierly trash preference files under OS X. You canit blame extension conflicts when stuff goes wonky. And while you do still rebuild the OS 9 desktop, you do it a whole new way in OS X. And so on.

Furthermore, OS X features like the Dock, Aqua, the Finder, and multi-user permissions, are just different enough from OS 9 to require some time un-learning the old ways and learning the new ones.

That said, the transition shouldnit be that difficult for most users. And I think most users will find the time investment worthwhile at some point. But again, unless youire a fairly savvy Mac user, I recommend waiting for a more polished release, and more native applications.

If you just have to try 10.0 now, I recommend you install it on a second Mac (best), a second hard disk (good), or a separate partition (almost as good). If things go south on you, as they well may, you can just erase that hard disk or volume, and reinstall. Only the most dedicated of Mac users should install this release on their one and only hard disk on their one and only Mac.

Finally, before attempting any OS upgrade (or firmware upgrade for that matter), make sure you have a reliable and complete backup. Better still, make sure you have two reliable and complete backups, just in case.

On the other hand, I donit think 10.0 is dangerous. Iive seen very few reports of people having catastrophic failures with it.

On the other, other hand (I know, thatis three hands), OS X includes thousands of invisible files, and is not trivial to remove from a hard disk once installed. So a complete backup really is important, in case you have to reformat the disk (which is the easiest, fastest way to get rid of an OS X installation, in my humble opinion.)

TMO: Gene Steinberg recently published an editorial saying that Apple didnit cooperate with authors during the development of Mac OS X. What was your own experience working with Apple during the writing of Mac OS X for Dummies?

Dr. Mac: Heis right. When I asked for a copy of the build Steve showed at MACWORLD in January, Apple PR merely told me "no." They wouldnit explain — no matter how I whined, they just said "no." And, in fact, they refused to supply me (us) with any new builds until March. Believe it or not, there was a moment there when I was afraid "Mac OS X For Dummies" was going to be cancelled because of Appleis lack of cooperation.

I hate to say it, but when I was writing "The Macworld Microsoft Office 2001 Bible" last year, Microsoft fell all over themselves to send me a new build every couple of weeks. They went out of their way to make sure Dennis (Cohen — my awesome co-author) and I had everything we needed to complete my book and get it out on time. And they (and I, and Dennis, and my publisher) have been duly rewarded -- the book has been in the top 25 Mac titles on almost every week since it was released (less than a month after Office 2001 shipped).

Itis just stupid. OS X builds were out there in abundance. Anyone who wanted to try it could download a CD image of almost every build, from a dozen or more sites on any given day. And everyone (except we book authors, of course) was talking freely about each new build within days of its birth.

So if Appleis reason for denying us from seeing OS X builds was to keep the features a secret, they failed miserably.

Youid think Apple would be thrilled that publishers were excited about OS X, and committing to major titles about it. But they werenit. I hope theyill be more cooperative when I start work on "Mac OS X 10.1 For Dummies." But Iim not holding my breath.

TMO: One of the things that ensured a smooth transition to the PowerPC from the 68k chip was an invisible (to the end user) emulation layer. How do you rate Classic support in Mac OS X?

Dr. Mac: In 10.0, Classic is darn good and itis only going to get better. Iim still amazed at how much old stuff (and even some very, very old stuff like DiskTop and RetrieveIt) works perfectly, and how fast most Classic applications run. Iid venture that most of my Classic stuff runs as fast under OS X as it did under 9.1. Thatis impressive.

Classic is pretty amazing but Iive found that itis no more stable than running 9.1, and probably a little less stable. I find have to restart Classic several times a day. But, since I used to have to reboot 9.1 almost as often, itis not a huge deal.

Speaking of crashing Classic, when Classic does get weird, it offers another benefit over native 9.1: When it crashes, you can just keep listening to iTunes for Mac OS X, or surf the Web while the Classic environment restarts.

(For the record, Iim using both OmniWeb and IE 5 as Web browsers because I havenit decided which is the best, yet. I think Iim leaning toward OmniWeb but Iim used to IE and it has some features I really like. So Iim going to keep using both for a while.)

TMO: Is running Classic-only apps in OS X a viable option for Mac users, especially people doing a job with their Macs? Give us some specifics on this, like who could and who shouldnit.

Dr. Mac: As I said, I donit think anyone who uses their Mac for real work every day should install 10.0 yet. Itis still more like a beta than a final product, and most users know (or should know) that itis a bad idea to use any beta software on the Mac you use to make a living.

Of course, Iim ignoring my own advice and have installed Mac OS X 10.0 on the main hard disk of every Mac I own (except my kidsi iMacs).

TMO: When do you think it will be viable for those who should wait?

Dr. Mac: In July, when version 10.1 ships (and is pre-installed on new Macs)? I hope by that time all the trouble spots and omissions will have been addressed, that you wonit need to reboot into 9.1 as often, and that there are more commercial "Built for Mac OS X" apps.

In fact, thatis really the determining factor. My advice for most people is to wait until your most-used apps go native. When that happens, youill have no excuse not to upgrade. Until then, your life may be simpler if you stick with OS 9.1.

TMO: Whatis the most important thing about Mac OS X?

Dr. Mac: That itis built on a proven Unix foundation. When OS X gets more mature, I have the utmost faith it will be among the most stable, reliable, and usable operating systems money can buy. Unix has proven reliable in mission-critical uses for many years. And OS X makes Unix even better.

Thereis an ancillary benefit I donit see discussed much: OS X and its Unix underpinnings will make the Mac much more acceptable to medium-and large businesses. Right now the Mac is a bastard stepchild and many companies either donit use them at all, or only deploy them in the creative department(s). OS X has the potential to change all that, which would be a good thing for Apple.

TMO: What has Apple missed the boat on so far? What feature is most lacking in X that keeps it from being All That It Can Be?

Dr. Mac: I think the biggest mistake is that they called this version "10.0" instead of "Public Beta 2." I know all about the argument that Apple had to ship something to get the ball rolling. But I think they missed the boat by charging $129 for this version and by making it a "point" release instead of a beta.

Yes, itis gotten decent reviews in most of the major media. But think of how much better those reviews would have been if some of the issues that plague 10.0 had been worked out while it was still in beta…

TMO: Is the missing support for DVD playback and burning CDs an issue?

Dr. Mac: Itis a pain. I hate having to reboot into 9.1 to do those things (and to use my digital camera or scanner). So yes, itis an issue. As I said in my column, an operating system upgrade ought to make life easier. Having to reboot in 9.1 to get things done is not easier. Before the upgrade, that stuff worked great. Now it works great but requires a bunch of additional steps. Thatis not really progress to me.

Again, it comes back to calling this a "point" release instead of a beta. If Apple had waited until July to call a version "10.0," there would be no issue at all — these things would have been fixed before it shipped.

TMO: Some equal time here, what has Apple executed brilliantly with Mac OS X?

Dr. Mac: 90 or 95 percent of it. If youire willing to put up with the inconveniences, itis already an awesome operating system. But the 5 or 10 percent thatis not brilliant (yet) is enough to convince me that most users will be better off waiting for the next release.

TMO: Something near and dear to my own heart: what do you think of Aqua?

Dr. Mac: The more I use it, the more I like it. I thought I might find myself going back to 9.1 when I had to get real work done, but so far that hasnit been the case. Frankly, while I was writing the book, I wasnit all that fond of the new interface. But since I put OS X on my main Mac a few weeks ago and Iive lived with it every day, I like it better.

It definitely takes some getting used to, and there are things I miss about the old interface (pop-up folders, being able to use QuicKeys in the Finder, the configurable Apple menu, etc.), but in time, all that will pass. In fact, more of it passes each day. There are already a handful of excellent interface enhancements (most notably DragThing 4.0), and more are being released every day. So it wonit be much longer before I have all the functionality Iim missing and then some.

TMO: What do you think of Luna, Microsoftis similarly named GUI for Windows XP?

Dr. Mac: I havenit seen much of it. I understand itis more than a little bit derivative of OS X. Iim going to have to take a look.

But since I donit own any Intel iron (I use Virtual PC when I have to deal with the dark side), it will probably be a while before I spend any quality time with it.

TMO: Note our smooth segue here, but what do you think of Apple porting Mac OS X to Intel? Is this something they *should* do?

Dr. Mac: My understanding is that Classic would be nearly impossible to replicate on an Intel chip. And since, for the next few years at least, Classic is a key feature of OS X, I just donit see it happening.

One of the reasons Macs are so cool is that Apple creates both the hardware and software. On the Win-Tel side, there are literally millions of combinations of motherboards/video cards/network interface cards/etc. Itis a wonder Windows works at all. Apple, on the other hand, knows everything about the hardware its operating systems will run on. And that enables Apple to do things other vendors canit do nearly as well (as weive seen with Disc Burner, iTunes, iMovie, and so on). I donit think Apple will give this advantage up.

One more thing to consider: Apple is a hardware company and they make the lionis share of their dough selling hardware. So even if they did move to an Intel chip someday, theyid almost certainly figure out a way that OS X for Intel would only run on Apple-branded hardware. (At least as long as Steve is running the show — you do remember what happened to Mac clones, donit you?) So I think the your chances of ever buying a shrink-wrapped copy of OS X and run it on a Dell or Gateway or Compaq box, are nil.

In a few years, when most people donit even know what Classic is, much less use it, and weire up to our ears in "Built for Mac OS X" software (which could be ported to Intel more easily than Classic apps), perhaps Apple will transition to proprietary hardware using Intel chips. But until then, it seems unlikely to me.

TMO: There have long been rumors that Apple has some version or another of Mac OS/OS X alrady running on Intel. Any truth there in your opinion?

Dr. Mac: Iive heard that "Star Trek" rumor many times, and it could even be true. But, for the reasons I just mentioned, I think itis unlikely weill see it publicly for a long time, if ever.

TMO: During the development process, Apple made a point of not emphasizing the Unix roots of Mac OS X. Now that the product is released, Apple is pushing that aspect heavily. Do you think that Mac OS X will be able to draw in some of the Unix and Linux users out there?

Dr. Mac: Definitely. In fact, if youive been reading message boards and mailing lists, you canit help but notice that many of the early adopters of Mac OS X have lots of Unix experience. I, for one, have learned a ton about the underlying technology from Unix experts online. And I think itis going to snowball. As time marches on, I foresee more and more Unix users trying Mac OS X and finding they like it better than other Unix flavors.

TMO: Is this important to Appleis future?

Dr. Mac: Absolutely. The Unix underpinnings of OS X make Apple much more viable to big and medium business, whoive traditionally shunned the Mac. Furthermore, it opens up a whole new market outside of enterprises — Unix geeks. So I say it canit help but be good for Apple that OS X is Unix.

TMO: I want to close with some questions about the way you use Mac OS X. In some of your For Dummies books, you have showed us the desktops of other famous Mac users. Can you show us yours?

Dr. Mac: Sure. But itis a work-in-progress. By the time you post it itill probably look different. Iim still experimenting with the interface, but this is how it looked a few minutes ago. And while Iim fairly happy with it right now, Iim still playing with it a lot.

Click the thumbnail for a (much) larger version (1280 X 1024)
We also have provided an 800 x 640 version

TMO: We have published some instructions showing the way Wincent Colaiuta and I set up our own X boxes. What special things have you done to set up your system?

Dr. Mac: The first thing I did was to move the Dock to the left (the first time I did it from the command line; the second time I used the more convenient OS X program, Docking Maneuvers). I turned on the Auto Hide feature, too, to keep it out of the way.

Then, I set up two DragThing docks on the right. This setup gives me the best of both docks, and leaves the middle of the screen clear for windows and documents.

Iive made lots of aliases so everything I need, even if it lives on other disks, is right there at Home. Iive also been playing with OS X icons a bit.

I find myself downloading a lot of new OS X shareware and freeware. So far not much of it has tickled me, but there are a few things I really like:

  • DVolume gives me a volume slider in the dock. (I still miss the Control Strip sometimes.)
  • epicware Mac OS X Screen Savers are totally awesome. Eye candy, for sure, but good eye candy.
  • OmniWeb is a better browser than IE 5 preview, though it is still a little rough around the edges. The perfect browser has yet to come along.


  • iTunes for OS X. Of course.

TMO: Do you use the command line? Have you booted into Single User mode?

Dr. Mac: I use the command line as little as possible. My Unix skills are modest at best. I know better than to muck with it much right now. That said, Iim learning more and more each day. So I can see myself using it more and more as time passes. (Isnit that weird? Iim looking forward to being able to use a command line on a Mac…)

Iive booted into single user mode a few times, usually to run fsck -y. (Hehe. See that? Iim sounding like a Unix man already.)

I can use it if I have to, but I try to avoid it.

TMO: Is Mac OS X your main working environment, and why?

Dr. Mac: It is. If I did anything else for a living, Iim not sure Iid be running it full-time on my main machine yet. But since this is my life, I feel thereis no way I could get to know it as well as I should without using it every day under real-world conditions. And so, for better or for worse, Iim using it every day, all day.

TMO: Our next to the last question is an open-ended opportunity for you to say anything else you want to.

Dr. Mac: The Beatles were the greatest rock and roll band of all time. :-)

TMO: Our last question is: Whatis your favorite Mac Web site? :-)

Dr. Mac: Hmmm. Let me think… That would be (in no particular order): MacFixIt, MacInTouch, MacNN, VersionTracker, Google, Apple, MacAddict, and TUCOWS.
Oh yeah, and MacObserver.

TMO: Thanks for your time, Bob!

Dr. Mac: Youire entirely welcome. Thanks for having me. Now when do I get that free lunch at a fancy restaurant? <grin>